Is Sitting Really As Bad As Smoking? How to Tell if You’re in Danger

Over the past 20 years, study after study has linked sitting too much to a wide range of health problems. From cancer to heart disease, diabetes, and depression, sitting for hours at a time has been shown to be a major risk factor in developing disease. Of course, there could be other factors that compound these findings, after all, correlation is not the same thing as causation. But, there’s some pretty striking evidence that shows the more you sit, the more likely you are to get sick.

Now, I’d like to add that the popularity of the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” is somewhat misleading. While this phrase is meant to communicate just how serious this epidemic of sedentary behavior is — it’s not meant to downplay the dangers of smoking or imply that smoking is safer than sitting. I can’t think of a more deadly habit than smoking. And of course, one person sitting can’t endanger another person (the way second-hand smoke can). 

So, is sitting *really* the new smoking? Maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole. But there’s no denying that we’re sitting even more as the years go on (despite the uptick in the use of standing desks) and we’re moving less. And, rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression all continue to rise.   

Why Is Sitting Bad For Your Health?

The CDC estimates that adults spend about 55% of their day sitting down. And then another good chunk of it sleeping. So that means, for most people, most of their day involves sedentary behavior. 

That means that if sitting all day really is bad for you, then most of us are in danger of developing serious diseases. 

There’s a couple of different ways to look at this.

First, you’ve got evidence that suggests you actually age faster and are more likely to die earlier the more you sit. There’s study after study indicating that sitting too much is just unhealthy.  

And then there’s the viewpoint that says when you account for the fact that the people sitting too much are already overweight, the link isn’t that strong between sitting and diseases like diabetes. But with 74% of the adult population in the United States either overweight or obese, I’m not sure how relevant those conclusions really are. 

The main takeaway from most of these studies is that if you sit a lot, whether you work in an office setting that requires that you sit all day — or if you watch TV for hours every day, and you don’t counter that with exercise before or after work…or you’re overweight…you could be putting your health at serious risk. 

What You Can Do To Prevent Sitting Risk

There are certain ways that you can mitigate the risk of sitting all day. The first is to focus on eating an anti-inflammatory diet. This is way better than sitting all day long and compounding the problem with processed foods. 

Some of the other ways to help stop sitting from wrecking your health include:

  1. Get up and move regularly

A recent small study found that when office workers (who were at risk for diabetes) stood up and moved for just three minutes every 30 minutes during their workday, they saw improvement in their fasting glucose levels after just three weeks of the habit. Some of these study participants only took about 15 steps as their activity. 

If you can regularly break up your sitting time with a full two minutes of walking, it’s a great start towards counteracting the negative effects of holding your chair down.

  1. Get moderate to intense exercise before or after work 

There is absolutely no denying that exercise is important for your overall health and wellbeing. It’s so important to make sure you’re getting enough exercise — and especially if you sit all day. 

One study suggested that 30-40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily could be enough to negate the health effects of sitting for a full 10 hours. But it’s also important to note that while the study indicated 30 minutes of daily exercise reduced the risk of death by 80%, that was only for those who spent 7 hours per day sitting. When the total hours sitting increased to 11 or 12, the protective effects weren’t there.

So, the bottom line is the more you sit, the more you need to exercise in order to counteract the negative consequences of sitting. 

  1. What about standing instead?

Once the research about sitting came to light, standing desks started to explode in popularity. But are they really a better alternative to sitting?

Yes, standing exerts more energy than sitting, but not very much. It’s better than nothing. But standing up for 45 minutes during your day isn’t enough to provide health benefits.  And it’s not really enough activity to be considered “active minutes.” So if you’re using a standing desk to justify not exercising after work, it’s not going to be enough to save your health.

Bottom Line: Move More, Sit Less

Some of the media coverage about sitting can be misleading. After all, you’ve probably heard the headlines that indicate somehow sitting negates exercise. There are a lot of people that would hear that and then think “well, what’s the point of exercising, then?”

The main thing to remember here is that the more you sit, the more you need to exercise in order to protect your health.

And if you do sit a lot, and you spend your days feeling tired and worn out, then maybe look to sitting too much as the culprit.

You can also try taking my quiz below and see if I can help you unravel the mystery of why you feel so tired all the time.


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